Pratap Bhanu Mehta 

The savage execution of Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur will deepen the darkest forebodings about India’s future. It is important to name this gruesome act for what it is, without aestheticising it. It was an execution and not a murder. Murders are horrible. But this act was far more sinister. It enacted the logic of execution.

The perpetrators were claiming the right to brutally punish Kanhaiya for speech that he was well within his legal rights to utter. By doing it publicly they were trying to claim the terrifying power of global precedent. There have been beheadings before on putative insults to the Prophet, and we cannot rule out more. The point of the execution was to lay down the clear line, “Say something on the Prophet that we find insulting, and there will be consequences.” It was to make clear that the perpetrators mean to enforce their idea of blasphemy, no matter what rational, secular and civilised laws require. The public nature of the act was to also signal that they do not consider this a crime but the enforcement of higher law. Its purpose is to create fear and terror. There is a Chinese proverb, “Kill one, frighten a thousand.” This execution worked on this logic of fear and terror.

This act has been unanimously condemned as an act of barbarity, without qualifications, across the political and religious spectrum. There was no immediate violent reaction. But the sense of foreboding comes from what these easy gestures of condemnation, which now come to us as flippantly as the “like” sign on Facebook, will leave unsaid. If we are to move forward, these dark, subterranean currents will have to be confronted squarely.

Talking about these is hazardous, for two reasons. In an already surcharged atmosphere, with a communal majoritarianism suffocating liberty and toleration, there is the justified fear of how particular arguments are used to whip up prejudice against minorities. Second, there is always what the late Paul Brass had presciently identified as the trap of discourse. Using the terms minority and majority, even for analytical purposes, even for progressive ends, often ends up congealing the very identities we are trying to complicate. So, even with these caveats, here are the fears we need to confront, even as we condemn the incident.

The biggest danger is that the BJP and other parties may succumb to the temptation to use this incident to target and question the existence of minorities. Rajasthan has an election coming up. The conduct of political parties, the perception of arbitrariness in police forces, has created unprecedented communal tensions across the state, which even the Congress is helplessly presiding over. Condemning an incident is not an answer to the endless narrative of revenge and counter revenge and feigned victimhood that will be circulated to use Kanhaiya’s execution as an opportunity to polarise. This incident will very quickly allow concerns about authoritarian repression and majoritarian communalism to be overtaken by an obsession with transnational Islamism. It would be naïve to pretend that there is no issue here. We are certainly doing our best to create a society where anyone can light a fire, and create a conflagration. The perpetrators’ gruesome execution works as a strategy, because they know we will make a political business out of it.

The psychological impact of seeing a video where someone walks into a tailor’s shop, for a quotidian transaction, and executes them, is horrifying. What produces such a sinister method of execution? Can we comfortably treat it as an exception? These will be unasked questions. The short answer is, we don’t really know with any confidence. And this situation is compounded by the fact that there is a breakdown of trust. On the one hand, there is the state that finds even a joke as evidence of complicity with ISIS, and will spread the net of suspicion incredulously wide. It will cast this as a war against a global ideology of Islamism and terrorism. But it has shown no capacity to make a distinction between ordinary Indian citizens trying to claim their rights or protesting against a particular policy, and terrorists that really pose a threat to the state and a decent moral order. Our political culture is incapable of drawing this distinction.

Faced with a threatening state, we as civil society also fear to fully understand the possibilities and sources of Islamist radicalisation, and acknowledge that like Hindutva, it could also have an autonomous dynamic, not rooted only in reaction or the threat of subjugation. This vacuum of trust will be filled by our favourite political narrative. In our context, it will strengthen whatever prejudices we were predisposed towards. Even as we condemn the moral horror, our capacity to create a common truth about such incidents will not be any stronger.

The larger narrative in which this incident will come to be embedded — is this a one-off local incident, a political reaction or part of a wider conspiracy for organised violence — requires the state and Centre to cooperate. If this is treated as a terrorist attack, then the NIA and police must speak in one credible voice. It is beyond utopian to imagine that in a situation like this, all political parties and the home minister and chief minister would speak in one credible voice. The partiality of the state in other cases of violence makes this an incredibly hard act to pull off. The strategic silences of the prime minister are always a clear signal that the government intends for the pot to simmer, if not boil.

And finally, there is the ideological gauntlet that Kanhaiya’s killers have thrown. Even as we condemn the incident we have to rise to the ideological challenge, that no free society can have a legal prohibition on “offences to religion”. What enables this act to wear the imprimatur of punishment rather than crime is that it sees itself as enforcing higher law. Any society where individuals think it is their duty to protect their prophets or their gods is doomed to be unfree, and caught in circles of violence. In a world of billions of people, someone will be tempted to insult; the point is to render those insults banal, marginal and harmless.

The will to condemn this act has to be accompanied by the commitment to build a free society. Otherwise Kanhaiya’s executioners win. But it is hard to shake off the feeling that the cumulative weight of our history and prejudices is pulling us into an abyss, with an almost gravitational force.

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